When teaching improvisation, so much of the focus goes into harmony. Which chord tones sound best? How can we connect one chord to the next? How many ii-V-I licks can you come up with? Can you learn those licks in all twelve keys? We can spend so much time and effort addressing harmonic approaches that we sometimes lose sight of other very important aspects of improvising, notably playing melodically and expressively.
We’ve all heard improvisers that play a bunch of notes and complicated patterns, yet don’t really say anything with their playing. Great improvisers convey great style and feeling in addition to playing interesting harmonic lines. There’s a reason we’d rather listen to John Coltrane play “Giant Steps” than hear this robot do it.
What approaches can we incorporate to help foster something as intangible as playing with feeling and melodicism? This is where free improvisation enters the picture. It seems a lot of people have a narrow scope of what free improvising is. To many, free playing equals dissonance and noise. Surely, that’s a legitimate stylistic choice for many free improvisers, but that’s not the only way to approach it. When it comes down to it, all free playing really means is not limiting yourself with preconceived harmonic choices. You can choose to move between key centers, or choose no key at all. When we can shed the burden of “making the changes,” we free up the mind to concentrate more on phrasing and melody. We can really go where our mind takes us, rather than where the chord changes and form tell us to go.
In the context of a lesson, you can trade phrases back and forth with your student. Choose a mood that you want to capture or choose a tempo. The back and forth between teacher and student will help ideas progress. You can even play at the same time – an improvised duet. This kind of free playing forces the improviser to focus on playing melodic phrases and capturing a certain personality in their playing. This adds up to creating a sound that’s unique to that player. Done regularly, the strengths gained from improvising freely (melodicism, unique phrasing) will inevitably transfer when playing over changes. The result is an improviser who can navigate the harmonic demands of a tune while conveying a uniquely developed sense of style.